From Sinister in 2012 to Happy Death Day in 2017, Blumhouse Productions is a production company that prides itself on crafting low-budget horror films from a growing list of rising auteurs, although, for every masterpiece like Get Out, there’s a dud on the level of Truth or Dare. Thankfully, The Invisible Man is on the positive end of that spectrum thanks to creative direction from Leigh Whannell, a stellar lead performance from Elisabeth Moss, and a clever way of grounding the classic H.G. Wells character into our modern times.
A woman tries to escape her violent ex-boyfriend, whose turned himself invisible for means of controlling her in this inventive retelling from writer/director Leigh Whannell.
In the thick of franchise warfare between all the major movie studios in the last half-decade, Universal Pictures threw their hat into the ring against the prolific Marvel Cinematic Universe by building the shared ‘Dark Universe’ around the likes of classic movie monsters such as Frankenstein and Dracula, only for it to be dead on arrival after its first movie, The Mummy, was a box office bomb. Afterwards, Universal elected to scrap the Dark Universe and put a soft reboot of it in the hands of Jason Blum and his production company Blumhouse Productions, which would take it in the direction toward standalone, low-budget horror films with the mark of the auteur filmmakers behind them, the first of those being The Invisible Man.
Following the cautionary tale about the terrifying possibilities of our growing relationship with technology that was Upgrade, filmmaker Leigh Whannell was assigned the director’s chair on a modern-day take of the classic Universal monster played by Claude Rains in 1933, who was originally adapted from the classic H.G. Wells novel. The 2020 version of The Invisible Man updates the vintage story in a tremendous way through a clever reimagining of the titular villain, creative camera movements, an unsettling sound design, and a commanding performance from Elisabeth Moss.
In The Invisible Man, Moss plays Cecilia Kass, who sleuths from the lavish mansion of her violent boyfriend and wunderkind techbro Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) to take refuge with her childhood friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid), while confiding in them and her sister Alice (Harriet Dyer) about Adrian’s abusive tendencies and controlling behavior. Just as Cecilia begins to step a little bit further away from James’ dwelling one day at a time, however, she learns that Adrian has taken his own life and left his entire fortune to her.
Cecilia’s suspicion is triggered immediately, which is justified one night when she picks up a blanket off the floor only to see footprints of an invisible figure standing on top of it. Things get more complicated when she finds her belongings sabotaged during a job interview, and again when a hateful email to Alice is sent from her email address, among other, more harmful developments. Convinced it’s her ex-boyfriend out to get her, Cecilia sets out to prove Adrian faked his own death and made himself invisible in order to invade her life to the point of not only driving her insane, but also back into his possession.
Whannell’s ingenuity as a filmmaker is on full display in The Invisible Man as he succeeds in modernizing the timeless villain from a mad chemist to the monstrousness of a domestic abuser. Rather than take a ham-fisted approach to the subject matter, however, Whannell depicts the terror of being in an abusive relationship through nuanced storytelling right from the get-go when Cecilia thinks she’s safe in the confines of her sister’s car only for Adrian to chase after her in the background of the shot, and again when she looks over her shoulder in her new bedroom, sensing the terrible feeling that her ex-boyfriend is still searching for her at every turn.
And the tension escalates with every twist and turn of The Invisible Man in part thanks to the camerawork. After innovating action sequences in Upgrade with rigs that tracked every move of its machine-controlled protagonist, Stefan Duscio’s camera lingers long enough on static shots to give audiences time to look for a moving object in the frame when Cecilia has left the room, and follows her through every room of her residence as she looks for her stalker in the dead of night, and down hallways of his own mansion as she looks for evidence to her claims. Often, the camera even assumes the perspective of the invisible perpetrator himself as he lurks through Cecilia’s homestead with intent to murder her loved ones in a terrifying moment where the stakes reach a boiling point.
Meanwhile, all viewers will feel every inch of Cecilia’s horror thanks to Elisabeth Moss’s tremendous lead performance. Moss conveys Cecilia’s longing to retain her innocence and be free of her predator with fear on every level, from weary unease when she pleads why he’s invading her life when there’s nothing left to take in a living room she’s convinced isn’t empty, to conversations with her sister where she can barely keep her inner resolve together, as well as later scenes where she is almost paralyzed with anxiety to the point of borderline catatonia.
It’s worth noting that the supporting characters around Cecilia don’t offer much in the way of personality, and one development veers dangerously close to the line of logical absurdity, given everything that preceded before it. But each turn over the course of The Invisible Man means well in its controlled illustration of life with a relentless stalker, and audiences will be on the edge of their seats from beginning to end thanks to creative editing that brings about scares mere seconds after each cut, and a musical score composed of screeching strings and unsettling drones that pulse with forceful aggression. Make no mistake about it, The Invisible Man is a tremendous and terrifying horror film full of incendiary scares that audiences won’t see coming.
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